lundi 24 mars 2008

Quan la mort est hors de prix

Dans les colonnes du Times de ce matin, la journaliste Catherine Philp publie un long reportage sur la situation tragique dans laquelle se trouve le pays, confronté au régime dictatorial du tyran tropical Robert Mugabe et à une hyperinflation sans équivalent dans le monde.

La Britannique en vadrouille se garde bien de porter des jugements sur l'état du pays et surtout elle ne franchit pas la limite que les Blancs s'imposent à eux-mêmes, ne jamais, jamais, même pas en rêve, comparer le Zimbabwe actuel à la Rhodésie de jadis.

Mais les Africains n'ont pas ces scrupules. Ils connaissent la triste situation qui est la leur, comme celle de Winfildah Takundwa, la veuve de Hilton, qui ne peut pas enterrer son mari faute des 15 euros nécessaires pour payer les services du croque-mort.

En parlant de l'heureux temps de son mariage, en 1965, la vieille dans se souvient :

Il y avait du gâteaux et du poulet, ru riz et des boissons. C'était très chouette.

Quand la journaliste lui demande comment était la Rhodésie d'alors, elle répond :

La Rhodésie ? C'était très beau. On pouvait acheter toute la nourriture dont on avait besoin.

Cruelle désillusion, tant pour ceux qui ont cru bien faire en soutenant la guérilla marxiste de Robert Mugabe, que pour les bonnes consciences qui ont applaudi à l'arrivé au pouvoir de ce dictateur sanguinaire qui, pour le malheur des peuples sous sa botte, est hélas plus bête que méchant.

Funeral costs rise as Zimbabwe elections
loom for Robert Mugabe

Hilton Takundwa died an old man in his own bed —- the only part of this tale that is not a tragedy. On Easter morning his wife Winfildah got up to make the breakfast and Hilton to pray. “Leave me a while so I can speak to my God,” he told her.

Then he got up from his knees and lay back down on his bed. “Now I must rest a while.”

When I arrived that afternoon, Hilton was dead. Inside his filthy bedroom, his body lay under an ancient furred brown blanket on the mattress where he and Winfildah had slept. She crouched on the floor beside the bed, her blind eyes lit with tears.

Next door in the slum dwelling's only other room, the family sat fretting over what to do. Tendai, Hilton's son, had just returned from the undertaker where he went to plead for time to pay the Z$300 million it would cost to take his father's body to the mortuary.

He returned with not only a refusal but worse news yet. In three days the price had risen threefold to Z$1 billion, a mere £12 at black-market rates.

“It's the fuel increase,” he said in despair. Their father's body would stay where it was.

Hilton Takundwa had cheated the odds to live until yesterday, stretching his life out for a full 74 years, exactly twice the average life expectancy for a Zimbabwean male.

But as the years stretched on so the price of death rose until his family could no longer afford to send him with dignity to his grave.

This is Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe on the eve of this weekend's historic elections; a land of empty shelves and broken hearts where annual inflation runs at 100,000 per cent, turning life into a struggle to survive and death a struggle to afford.

Four months ago the highest denomination note available was Z$200,000. Now it is Z$10 million.

Money earned one day melts into nothing the next and basic commodities are so scarce and expensive that housewives buy carved-off slivers of soap instead of bars and cooking oil is sold by the spoonful not the litre.

The Takundwa family were never rich but they got by. Hilton and Winfildah's three sons worked in textile and canning factories and earned a basic wage.

Ten years ago their youngest son lost his job and committed suicide. Three years after that the other two were laid off.

Diabetes cost Winfildah her sight six years ago, not long after Mugabe's land reform programme started in what was once the breadbasket of southern Africa.

None of the family have had a regular job since, scraping by on profits from selling vegetables by the roadside or mixing up sugar, water and colourings to make a crude soft drink to sell in plastic bags.

Hilton scraped together the cash to buy diabetes medication for himself and his wife. They used to get their treatment free but last year had to start paying.

This month Hilton had gone to the hospital to beg for government assistance. The Takundwas had no family abroad to help them as their luckier neighbours do.

A quarter of the population have left the country as the economy has crumbled and one in three families relies on remittances from relatives abroad. Once it was for extras — school uniforms and books. Now it is for the most basic food.

“Life is very, very hard for us,” Winfildah tells me, her cloudy eyes darting in the gloom. It was not always this way. When she and Hilton married in 1965 their wedding was a big one, a traditional tribal gathering, with hundreds of guests feasting. Her face breaks into a smile as she recalls the day.

“There was a cake and chicken, rice and drinks,” she remembers. “Oh it was very fine.” What was Zimbabwe like back then, I ask. Her reply throws me for an instant: “Rhodesia, oh it was beautiful, we could buy all the food we needed.”

Then her eyes filled with tears. “Zimbabwe, life is very hard. Now I'm crying. You can't even buy a bar of soap. If Mugabe stays it will be worse, even worse than now.”

Zimbabweans are finally daring to dream that might happen. But for the Takundwas, the immediate future looks bleak. Winfildah still needs medication for her diabetes; how much she doesn't know, but whatever it is, she cannot afford it.

“My husband bought it for me, from the money he got from selling the drinks. Now he is gone, I am desperate. I don't know how I will buy it now.”

Tendai comes in to the room and sits on the bed, next to his father's corpse, shame written on his face. He has returned from going round the neighbours, begging for contributions to have his father's body taken away.

They are sympathetic, but he is emptyhanded. The body will have to stay.

The flies were already beginning to circle as we left, Winfildah still sitting in the gloom. Just up the road, stonemasons were hard at work chiselling names into the grave stones that Hilton would never have.

“In loving memory of Father, Benjamin Chimalizeni,” read one, but the dates were missing, blank spaces where the masons had etched the words “Born” and “Died”.

Benjamin Chimalizeni was still alive, it transpired, but his family had bought the gravestone knowing that they would not be able to afford it if they waited until he died.

I flipped through my notebook to where I had written down Hilton's birthdate from his identity card. “23.3.34”. It was his birthday. Hilton had died on his 74th birthday but no one had told us or even remembered. They were too busy trying to survive.

Catherine Philp and Richard Mills paid for the funeral. It cost £12.

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